Part 8: The 111 text service for the deaf

Realising benefits from six public sector technology projects.

What the project was about

Since the 1960s, deaf people have interacted with the New Zealand Police (the Police) through technology such as fixed-base computers and fax machines. However, these technologies were characterised by their fixed location and slowness compared to voice equivalents.

Because it was difficult to access appropriate technology, deaf people had to rely on family, friends, or neighbours to access emergency services. The emergency services considered this unsatisfactory.

In 2007, the death of deaf woman Emma Agnew and the subsequent homicide inquiry brought to the attention of police communications specialists the extent to which deaf people communicate effectively using the cellphone short message service (SMS).

An international check found no other jurisdictions with suitable solutions, and international advice was that SMS was not designed or suitable for high-reliability communications. However, police operations are traditional users and experts in radio communications and understand telecommunications as part of their core operations. Because of this, and an understanding of the risks involved, the Police felt that the SMS text service, while not perfect, was the best alternative available.

Motivated to explore and analyse further, the Police first talked with the 9000-strong group of "culturally deaf" people that Deaf Aotearoa New Zealand (DANZ) represents. Culturally deaf people communicate mainly using visual language (especially New Zealand Sign Language). If the Police could address the needs of this group, then other variations on the concept should be comparatively straightforward.

After developing the capability to meet the needs of the culturally deaf, the Police extended the service to meet the needs of the wider hearing-impaired community (such as citizens with significant age or accident-related hearing loss) who use both voice and visual communications. This includes about 240,000 people the National Foundation for the Deaf represents.

The Police's experience with the 111 service suggested that opening up a text-for-all 111 service to the public would mean operations centres would have to deal with many hoax calls. Therefore, the Police decided to design an SMS emergency response system based on closed subscriptions. The system's specifications were prepared by closely consulting members of the deaf community through community meetings and stakeholders helping to design the new system. For example, as a result of DANZ feedback, the website interface was simplified and made suitable for visual communicators by using video.

The resulting system allows subscribers to send a 111 text message from their mobile devices and communicate with first-responder contacts using text messages. This has meant that, for the first time, deaf people can access emergency support directly while away from their home , with access to support at a comparable speed to those who can speak on telephones.

During the design, the website used in signing up for the system emerged as a critically important part of the 111 Deaf Text Service. This is the interface that potential users of the system use to learn what the system is, how it can help them, and how to subscribe. Designing an online experience suitable for deaf people was a main success factor.

There was a $290,000 investment required. It cost about $20,000 a year to run the website and for licences, and there are fees for each transaction to telecommunications providers.

Realised benefits

Direct benefits

The Police communicate more effectively as a result of addressing equity-of-access issues for a particular group. The 111 Deaf Text Service has met the specific needs of the culturally deaf community that were identified and addressed in consultation with those involved. The stakeholders have described the service as creating "self-determination" and as a "tangible advance in human rights".

The Police have made their communications more efficient. Emergency centres manage 111 messages from deaf subscribers directly, avoiding the delays and miscommunications introduced by third parties that characterised the previous options. As a result, response times for emergency services to the deaf community are on a par with what the wider public expects of the 111 service.

Emergency call communications have been reported to be more accurate. Emergency response staff are able to exchange text messages with a distressed deaf person without excessive time delays. This has led to better operational decisions throughout the emergency response.

Indirect benefits

The Police have reported better understanding customers' needs by being more aware of what cultural deafness means. This has led to better understanding of a specific community's needs and has resulted in operational practices being adjusted to suit.

Intangible benefits

The Police's reputation among a culturally distinct minority has improved.

The Police have achieved new organisational knowledge about how to effectively communicate with culturally deaf people face-to-face and using other channels.

Better Police understanding of one minority group has training and cultural-awareness benefits for similar Police activities with other groups that have specific communications challenges.

Unexpected and/or unplanned benefits

The flexible Whispir technology platform for deaf 111 systems has provided the Police with a new core communications capability that goes far beyond the 111 text service. When the first deaf text service was being set up, the Police did not try to identify how the new capability would be used in other applications. Instead, it saw the new capability as something to be used when the need arose. The Police did not have to wait long to use it again Whispir was deployed overnight in response to the September 2010 and February 2011 Canterbury earthquakes for communications between the Police, international emergency personnel, and others.

The system was used again during the 2011 Rugby World cup events in Auckland, where it was used to maintain text-based communications with the Police and other personnel managing crowds by being able to send the same message to many people at the same time. The crowded stadium environment, a difficult noisy environment for traditional phone communications, was managed effectively using Whispir.

Another example came from Counties-Manukau Police, where targeted text communications from the Police to shopping mall security staff have been used to improve crime detection and apprehend criminals in the event of reported crimes such as shoplifting or bag snatches. Using Whispir, the whole security infrastructure at a particular site can be alerted promptly.

The learning from engaging with the culturally deaf led to the Police making informed design decisions when it came to extending the scope of the deaf text system to the wider hearing-impaired community.

On top of this, other groups with communications challenges are able to benefit from the Police's deeper understanding of how to use SMS. For example, the Police are planning to use the Whispir platform to address the needs of those with physical disabilities that inhibit asynchronous voice communications, such as members of the community with cerebral palsy or similar conditions.

Dynamic nature of benefits realisation

Realising benefits is seen as an ongoing part of the "business-as-usual" operation of this system. However, the generic system's wider capability means benefits that go beyond the scope of the initial project are being sought. For example, while engaging with deaf people, the Police learned the essential difference between the culturally deaf community and the hearing-impaired deaf community and the need to address the needs of groups within that community of stakeholders differently.

In choosing Whispir, the Police looked beyond the initial benefits of the deaf text application and instead sought to understand the potential benefits of using the technology in their wider communications. Taking the wider view helped them to choose a system that could address emerging needs and spread Whispir's ongoing operational costs.

Identifying multiple uses for the generic capability gave the Police a way to scale the learning benefits of training staff and developing skills to use deaf text services. Training for the 111 Deaf Text Service was more than just using the technology. It helped create more cultural awareness among operational responders within the Police.

Practices that helped achieve benefits

Reflective practice led to the Police recruiting non-police staff and police officers with special skills to engage with the community. For example, the practice of sending a police officer and an ambulance officer fluent in New Zealand Sign Language to community consultation meetings increased engagement significantly.

The Police have a strong capability maturity in telecommunications and IT through being long-term users and early adopters of ICT. In the 111 Deaf Text Service project, the Police were able to put these core capabilities in line with operational policing needs. This means that the technology is well understood and is being used for more than originally intended.

The Police analysed the project's requirements and chose the technology platform so that the system could be integrated easily into the wider police communication infrastructure.

At the same time as the Police addressed the specific needs of the project at hand, they stayed aware of the possible future uses of the technology. Being so aware has paid off. By taking this platform-orientated architecture approach, the Police have used the Whispir platform to design and set up a successful generic capability for a registration-based SMS gateway.

The deaf text project team responded quickly to feedback about website usability in the registration process and adapted the site to meeting users' needs. This was seen as a critical factor in achieving ongoing confidence and uptake among users. This was especially true when dealing with a community that had traditionally felt disenfranchised.

The project took a holistic approach to working with many agencies to understand and develop the 111 Deaf Text Service and the Whispir platform. This flexible and innovative thinking carried out in consultation with the Police and the fire and ambulance services built on a history of shared services and common capability and led to successful collaboration between agencies.

Lessons for other projects

Checking for available solutions in use around the world can help to make better decisions about what benefits are achievable and what is needed to effectively design and set up a similar ICT-enabled project in a different institutional setting. If international good practice is not available, assess further local experience and risks.

Build upon internal expertise and look for solutions from outside the organisation. The Police's depth of knowledge about telecommunications practices allowed them to rightly reject conventional wisdom.

Using reflective practices, recruiting non-police expertise when needed, and building on talents in the police community (such as identifying officers who knew New Zealand Sign Language) helped to engage the community enough to contribute directly to the project's success.

From as early as the design phase, the Police organised ongoing engagement with a representative group of target customers and invested in methods and resources to improve that engagement and further build understanding of the specific needs of customers. For example, the practice of sending a police officer and ambulance officer who were fluent in New Zealand Sign Language to community consultation meetings made a big difference to engagement. Another example is the quick response from the deaf text project team to feedback about how usable the website was for registration, leading to quickly adapting the site to the needs of users. This was a critical factor in attracting users to the service.

Start small when setting up an ICT-enabled innovation initiative to reduce complexity and potential risks. Use local knowledge and expertise.

Pay attention to the design of what online users see to ensure that it is targeted at the intended audience with enough information but not too much.

Being flexibly innovative helped in designing and setting up the technical solution and to identify more uses for the capability in police communications. This will help to deliver other solutions targeted at different customer groups and other problems.

Good practices

The good practices from this project that we refer to in the discussion in Part 9 are:

  • being business-led, flexible, and agile:
    • looking at what is being used nationally and/or internationally before starting the project to reduce risks of duplication; and
    • learning iteratively; and
  • working effectively with stakeholders, including end users, and paying a lot of attention to users' experiences.
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